Down East 2013 ©
My father was always fixing up something. Working up a handle for an ax or hammer, or repairing old furniture — it didn’t matter. He just liked to tinker with wood.
A lot of times my grandfather, a Hallowell contractor, would tear down an old house or barn, and Pa would haul home any boards, planks, or timbers he could get. We always had a good-sized pile of used lumber around. Everything was different back then. You could have junk all over the place and no one really complained. We always had a few old cars and motorcycles around the yard that my oldest brother, Rusty, would try to get running. He was the mechanic in the family. Pa had rows of brick, stone, and masonry goods. I remember an old buckboard, an open sleigh, cider barrels, piles of cordwood. You name it, we had it!
Pa would take me to the dump with him on weekends. We’d haul half a truckload to the Hallowell Town Dump and sometimes we’d bring more back than we dumped — anything from canvas tarps to bicycles. The old guy that used to run the place was Lee Spencer. He lived right at the dump. He had a little shack on the left as you drove in. He’d save out the stuff he liked and pile it around the shack to sell to someone or give away. He had a wood stove inside and could heat his place with wood collected from the dump. Pa used to stop and talk to him. Once in a while Pa would buy an old chair or desk or something for a dollar or two. I don’t know if that’s where he got that old double runner sled.
Pa used that first one as a pattern to build a new sled from scratch out of used lumber. I was just a little kid, but I can see him working on that bobsled every night in the shed. Everything that went into that sled came from the piles in the yard. The body was made from an eight-foot, two-by-twelve-inch plank, probably spruce. Across the plank he screwed hardwood strips about two feet long and sixteen inches apart. The runners were made of one-inch hardwood cut with a jigsaw, then hand rasped and sanded. To the bottom of the runners, Pa attached strips of round steel from a metal pipe. The front runners could be steered by ropes that ran from their tips. The ropes were crisscrossed, making the sled easier to steer. The brake was located at the rear — you pulled up a handle, which engaged two metal dogs that bit into the snow or crust. This was quite a rig, actually. You could put five or six people on it. It was heavy, too. Pa painted it green and red. What a machine!
I was the baby of the family, so I got to sit in the middle, protected from the elements. We’d all grab onto the long rope and pull the sled from the house over to the “First Field” — one of the Vaughan family’s four or five fields. Back in those days there was crust as hard as iron. The snow was acid free. We’d all pile onto the sled. Pa would say, “Ready?” And we’d respond, “Yep!” in chorus. He’d give the sled a push, then hop on back because he was the brakeman. Ma sat in front of him, holding me. My brothers Rusty and Ben used to take turns steering, and one of the girls was usually packed in there somewhere, too. That sled would glide along like a dream. I can still hear the steel runners chafing over the crust, and a chorus of “Whoas” when you’d drop over a drift and your belly became weightless for a second or two. Pa never had to use the brake much. At the bottom of the “First Field” was a hill that would stop you about half way up it. You could see your shadows from the moon as you stood up afterwards. “What a ride that one was!” someone would always say.
We ran that old sled for years. I don’t know whatever became of it. I asked Pa if my grandfather had had a double runner, too. He said he did. Said Gramp and his friends went down Winthrop Hill around 1905, clear across the frozen Kennebec. They never stopped till they hit the riverbank on the Chelsea side. Seems the brake handle snapped off halfway down the hill!
A similar version of this article originally appeared in the Kennebec Journal